It’s easy to see Donald Trump’s presidency as an assault on women. The “grab them by the pussy” president has continued to find new ways to humiliate women, appointed a Cabinet made up almost entirely of white men, and created policies on reproductive rights that are draconian and deadly. Many will argue that the Women’s March and #MeToo movements are reactions to this dystopian feminist novel come to life. But that is too simple a story.
Lost in this telling of events is the role white women play in this nightmare presidency. White women helped Trump ascend to power, and are working to keep him there. They are part of Trump’s base, his funders and his administration. Yet they continue to get a pass for the far-reaching, generational damage they are helping Trump to unleash on this country, and particularly on black and brown people.
A majority of white women ― 53 percent ― voted for Trump. This oft-repeated data point tends to disappear from coverage of the Women’s March and the #MeToo campaign. Instead, feel-good accounts of the resistance repeat a cheery narrative about women in pink hats as a fixed, biological category of people who all experience the world in the same way and uniformly hold center-left political views.
That narrative papers over reality: Many white women are enabling Trump.
Trump won the votes of millions of white women, but before he did that, he won the support of Rebekah Mercer, who is arguably his most powerful white female backer. Mercer, the daughter of hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, insisted in the summer of 2016 that Steve Bannon take over the Trump campaign. Bannon’s Breitbart-tested message about the need for border walls to protect us from Mexican immigrants, who he has portrayed as drug dealers and rapists, appeals to white women.
The majority of white women have voted Republican for decades, and that pattern is rooted in systems of white supremacy and patriarchy: When white women marry white men (and around 90 percent do), their economic interests are yoked to those of their husbands. Most people writing and talking about Trump don’t put “white” and “women” together as a demographic category. Instead, the white women who voted for Trump are lumped together as “Republican” or “rural” or “white evangelicals,” but whiteness and the way it changes woman-ness slips away in these configurations.
It’s hard for us to grasp the idea that white women are culpable, because it doesn’t fit the widespread culture image of us as benevolent, peaceful and nurturing. These assumptions allow white women to behave in ways that materially harm non-white people, without being held accountable. Let me tell you a story about how this works.
A white woman I knew in graduate school ― I’ll call her “Jolene” ― had a job as a convenience store clerk. It was miserable, because she was often at work alone on the overnight shift. But Jolene kept at it, because when she reconciled the cash drawer each morning, she skimmed a little off the top for herself. Before electronic inventory tagging, computerized databases and surveillance cameras, she could simply pocket money from cash sales and discard the paper receipts without being detected. The additional income enabled her to pay for grad school and take an annual winter trip to the Bahamas. It the vacations that prompted me to ask a mutual friend how a fellow broke graduate student could afford this lifestyle. My friend explained Jolene’s side hustle. How did she get away it? I asked. “She’s a white woman,” my friend replied. “It never occurred to her boss that she would ever do such a thing.”
“It never occurred to her boss.” That has stayed with me as an archetypal example of how white women get away with materially harming other people: Their whiteness insulates them from suspicion, which makes it far less likely they’ll be caught and held accountable.
The white women in the Trump administration are using their considerable, albeit provisional, power to drive the country into a ditch. Consider the case of Hope Hicks. Hicks is the director of communications at the White House, and, until recently, she had mostly stayed out of the press. An article published in the Los Angeles Times last week details her background (PR is the family business), and reports that she may be implicated in activities that sound a great deal like obstructing justice ― activities that carry some heavy consequences, like incarceration. Instead of collective outrage, the breadcrumbs of criminal activity elicited responses more like this:
This was one of many expressions of concern for Hicks, that wayward child of Democrats who finds herself tangled up in this mess of an administration. Surely she didn’t truly choose this path; surely she’s been led astray; surely we are obligated to help her. This assumes that Hicks is collateral damage of Trump’s administration, not one of its chief architects.
Then there’s fellow architect Kellyanne Conway, who has called herself “the face of Trump’s movement.” Along with Bannon, Conway crafted a consistent message for the Trump campaign ― one that featured, as The Hollywood Reporter called it, a “remade economy and a disdain for liberal culture.” Conway has often been the voice of the movement, too. “Alternative facts” was her turn of phrase; she used it during a media appearance in which she defended the president’s brazen lies about the size of his inauguration crowds.
Since then, as “counselor to the president,” she has scaled back her media presence. Still, she attends significant meetings in the Oval Office, making her one of the most powerful women in the White House and in the nation. But aside from the Kate McKinnon’s devastating satire, Conway has largely escaped the kind of scrutiny that Bannon has received. That’s partly sexism: A man will get the accolades for something on which a woman worked just as hard. And it’s partly white supremacy: A white woman doing real damage will fly under the radar, because the dominant culture doesn’t know how to tell a story about white women doing reprehensible things without turning it into some sort of Cruella De Vil parody.
Conway also got away with violating White House ethics rules last February. When Nordstrom pulled Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from its stores, Conway shouted “buy Ivanka’s stuff!” during a broadcast television interview. An official giving a free commercial for a member of the president’s family was a clear violation of ethics policies. White House counsel briefed Conway about ethics ― twice ― but there were no other consequences for her.
And then, of course, we come to Ivanka Trump herself. Her photogenic appearance makes it easy for her to run interference for her father’s hateful policies. Last January, as she posted on Instagram about her glamorous lifestyle with husband, her father’s administration rolled out its first attempt at a Muslim ban. The timing of one of her posts created outrage in some quarters, but her “elegant,” soft-focus Insta-life has sailed on, unimpeded by criticism. The groomed exterior Ivanka presents to the world, and the things she gets away with as a result, are wrapped up in her whiteness.
It can be tricky to come for Ivanka. “You’re not supposed to criticize someone’s daughter,” New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum has observed. And if anyone does come for Ivanka ― as when she broke protocol and took her father’s seat at the G-20 ― the president scores points by defending her, both with his base and a broader range of people who see it as a reasonable response.
Ivanka’s cover story has been that she is a progressive influence on her father’s more retrograde impulses. The first year of the Trump administration, during which “the most powerful woman in the White House” was unable to prevent the president from advancing an anti-climate science, anti-LGBTQ and anti-health care agenda, should have shattered this collective delusion. It has not.
As we look for explanations for this presidency, and all the destruction it has wrought, we must hold white women accountable for their active role in our collective misery. White womanhood bought my old friend Jolene freedom from suspicion and annual trips to the Bahamas. For the women making Trump’s regime possible, it’s buying much more than that ― and America will be paying for it for generations.
Jessie Daniels is a Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.